My Board name on Don Rockwell is Kibbee Nayee. I am born and raised Syrian (Lebanon was part of Syria until WWI) and I am a consummate foodie.
I loved Lebanese Taverna in the '80s when its only location was in Arlington (and before it expanded to the place next door). I watched the Abi Najm kids grow up. It was the best Middle Eastern food in the Washington metropolitan area.
And then it expanded and chained, and it lost the quality. Don't worry about the Abi Najm's, they made millions and God bless them. But the quality baton has been passed.
Right now, the best Middle Eastern food in the Washington metropolitan area is Lebanese Butcher and Mediterranean Gourmet Market on Franconia Road near Kingstowne. Yes, I've tried them all, and yes, I know what I'm talking about.
A distant third is Layalina, only because it is truly Syrian.
My first dining experience at the Lebanese Butcher wasn’t a home run, but I would go back. The baba ghanoush was tasty while the hummus left me wanting for more flavor—garlic? For dinner, I had the chicken shawarma. Juicy delicousness is the only way to describe the chicken, although I would have enjoyed a fluffier pita. The pitas at the Lebanese Butcher are thinner than the cheap napkins dispensed at the table. A garlicky tzatziki sauce accompanied the shawarma. I call this stuff magic. Magic was so good, if someone slathered it on the pavement, I would lick it dry. Marcus had the lamb shawarma, which was, unfortunately, dull and dried out. As it was close to closing time, the cook brought us some free bakalava and tea (or do they give this to everyone?). It was a nice way to end the meal.
I think I would pick the Lebanese Butcher over Lebanese Taverna.
just ate at LB for the first time, yes the atmosphere is lacking, except for the cool shrine-like fountain built into the wall, and they don't serve alcohol.
the soujouk was wonderful, nicely spiced and juicy, especially compared with the smaller makanek sausages which were good but dry. the hummus was nice n oily, and I must say their felafel is the best I've ever had, crunchy and moist at the same time, made me remember the current tired dry version at Leb Tav Pentagon City. The lamb schwarma was great. and I loved the garnishes, sauteed onions and little cubes of feta
Made me think of the way I gushed over the Leb Tav Westover, circa 1983, when middle-eastern food in general was new to me.
Last night, we ate at Lebanese Butcher for the first time. When we want a meal that's all about the food, we'll be back. When we want a calmer, more polished experience, we'll dine elsewhere. Last night, the excellent food had to triumph over...
... screaming babies
... a door to the butcher shop that shrieked each time someone opened it
(we sat at the table next to the swinging door)
... pounding of meat in the butcher shop
... a brief episode in which someone turned the music up to deafness-inducing levels. Patrons at the five occupied tables would ask for the volume to be turned down after which someone would turn it up again. Eventually, the volume ended up at a reasonable level.
Two of us shared the 13-mezze platter. We were given the following: labne cheese, hummus, baba ganouj, stuffed grape leaves, tabbouleh, fattoosh, green beans, falafel, kibbe, small sausages (prounounced something like mamenek), soujouk, pickle/vegetable platter, and 1 each of cheese-filled, spinach-filled, and meat-filled pastry. We've had versions of all of these dishes before.
The Lebanese Butcher's version of these dishes was uniformly delicious and occasionly obliterated the competition's versions. We'll be hard pressed to eat stuffed grape leaves anywhere else. LB's version is all about the grape leaf itself. In fact, there's relatively little filling. The leaves had a taste and texture that made me realize these were not jarred or canned grape leaves. When we asked the chef, he explained that he grows grape vines in his yard and brines/prepares own grape leaves. Extraordinary!
We also loved the coarse texture of the soujouk and the fiery sauce spooned over the meat. While we were still eating, we asked the waitress to repeat the name of the dish and she said, "soujouk." We were close to the kitchen and the chef heard the exchange. He spontaneously called out "Do you like?" When we responsed with an enthusiastic "Wonderful!" he threw up his hands and did a little dance. (LB's mamenek was much closer to the food that has been called soujouk in other restaurants.)
The only criticism of the food is the fact that the pickle and vegetable platter is largely redundant. Each mezze dish is nicely garnished with all but one of the items already included in the pickle/vegetable platter.
TMentzer, I am with you on Layalina being very good, the food is outstanding and the host is a charmer, very helpful with helping newbys order. But it is not cheap. Atmosphere is very welcoming, not unlike the Lebanese Taverna on Wash Blvd, which also has good food, decent atmosphere and great service.
The Lebanese Butcher is a different game altogether. It is a bit of a dive with the butcher just through the swinging doors but I think that adds to the charm, not detracts. I went there with a lebanese friend the first time and thought that the welcome was warm because I was with a 'local' but the friendlieness was there every time I went back, and the food is pretty darned good. A couple of weeks ago I went back, & split a lamb shawarma, a lamb kabob, chicken tawook and lamb ouzi between 4 of us and it was heaven. The hummous and baba ganouj are just a little different than I am used to, but in a good way.
Leah, I have never had a bad meal at any of the three, though, so it is a win-win-win sort of choice.
I think Layalina is pretty good and for some things is better than Lebanese Taverna. A few years back, we ate dinner there pretty regularly. All you say about the atmosphere is true.
But the food at Lebanese Butcher blows them both away. If it's all about the food, then go there.
Skip both and head to Layalina at 5216 Wilson Blvd. The atmosphere is great, family-owned, very friendly, gorgeous space, and the food is great. Several preparations of lamb shanks, the shawarma is great, the kafta is also very good. Also a mass of mezze, and a good variety of veg options if that's a concern.
(Between your two options, the Butcher for a more interesting experience.)
Went to Lebanese Butcher with the wife tonight. We order grape leaves and lamb, Falafal platter, and the roast lamb wrapped in peta. It was outstanding. My favorite was the falafal. Crunchy on the outside, light and fluffy inside. I'd put these up against the one I use to get in NY. Wrapped in a warm pita with cukes, tomato, and other items, it was great.
The grape leaves with lamp came with 10 stuffed grape leaves (they were warm) and big hunks of stewed lamb. The grape leaves were really good (I like these more than the colder version that has the been covered in oil: although those are good too). The best was the stewed lamb. The meat fell off the bone. It was basic comfort food. After eating the meat, I fished out the marrow and eat it with the pita. Awesome.
The lamb in pita was good but next to the other two dishes, it didn't shine as much. I'll have that tomorrow for lunch.
Lebanese Butcher has all the atmosphere of a butcher shop because that's what it is.
However, that would not stop a group of eight intrepid Chowhounds from gathering there and loving it as we did earlier this year. Our post is linked below.